Paul Lambert (‘Dune’ visual effects) on delivering otherworldly effects by basing them ‘in reality’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“The worm was a challenge. But it wasn’t just the worm, it was the worm and the sand,” reveals “Dune” visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert. He recently scored an Oscar nomination for bringing the harsh, sand-covered world of Arrakis to life in Denis Villenueve’s sci-fi epic. The key to delivering photoreal digital effects in the film was to find the right real world references to make this far away world believable. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

SEE Mark Mangini and Theo Green interview: ‘Dune’ sound design

Lambert didn’t have difficulty in creating the awe-inspiring giant sandworm that lurks below the surface of Arrakis, but his team was stumped when they had to put the beast in motion. “We had the design for the worm,” says Lambert, “but then we had to try and make it move.” The effects artist holds firm that a digital effect works best “when you try and base it on something in reality.” The only problem was finding any example of something on Earth which could displace the gargantuan amounts of sand required. And basing the creature’s mobility on small earthworms or snakes gave a result that was entirely uncinematic.

Over the course of many virtual “sand tests,” Lambert discovered that “the sand almost behaved like water.” This lightbulb moment resulted in an entirely different approach to the worm’s movement vocabulary, thinking of it more as a “sand whale.” Lambert describes how he “treated the dunes as waves,” animating the beast cresting and diving through them. Finally he had found the cinematic effect suitable for the film.

SEE ‘Dune’ wins at Art Directors Guild Awards on the way to Oscars

Real world references were also important for the intense bombing and ensuing battle at the Arrakeen palace. “It’s all about the light,” states Lambert. The chaotic sequence is full of exploding ships, bombs falling from the air, and soldiers exchanging blows. He explains that in scenes like this the audience can easily detect that something is “off” if the lighting doesn’t match between the background and foreground shots. To combat this, special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer used several real fireballs on set, which Lambert could copy in post production. He painted over and added to these explosions with life-like digital creations. The final product contains computer generated explosions that feel massive and dangerous, but all the light cast on the actors’ faces is completely natural. Lambert admits it’s one of his favorite sequences thanks to the grounded, photoreal results. “It does feel real,” he admits. “You get taken by the story of it.”

“Dune” marks the third Oscar nomination for Lambert. He was previously nominated for “Blade Runner 2049” and “First Man,” winning the Oscar both times.

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